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Weightlifting and the Inner Game Of Work

This post is not really about weightlifting. Rather, it’s about the unexpected framework that lifting has provided for thinking about all the ways that I (and I suspect many other humans) tend to get in their own way at work.

I’ve written about my experience in Leadwise’s Self Management Intensive earlier this year, and the realization that moving towards a more participatory, self-managed way of organizing is less about the perfect org structure, a visionary leader, or the right processes or tools, and more about the inner work necessary for individuals to embrace and thrive in such an environment.

Since then, I’ve continued to adjust to working in an all-virtual, Results Only Work Environment which has been fertile ground for observing and questioning my own assumptions about work.

At the same time, my unexpected love for weightlifting has continued to grow. In 2017 I’ve focused on powerlifting-style training (seeking to maximize total weight in the big three lifts: back squat, bench press and deadlift). This week I smashed my goal for 2017  to hit a 200 lb deadlift, when I pulled 205 lbs. (Next goal: 2 x my body weight).

Even as a long-time committed exerciser, I’ve been amazed at the degree to which serious weightlifting is a mental, rather than physical struggle.  It has brought great clarity to the ways in which I am my own toughest adversary, and has provided a valuable backdrop for thinking about how these insights translate beyond me, and into  professional and organizational contexts.

For those with a background in coaching, or perhaps in sport, these insights may be somewhat obvious. But for me they were often unexpected, and continue to challenge me, both under the bar and in my day-to-day work.

Start by Sucking at Something. A growth mindset is hot right now, and I’ve come to  understand why. In traditional organizations we almost always look to hire people who’ve already been successful at the job we’re hiring them for. We don’t hire for potential, probably because we don’t really know how, and because there is precious little room for people to do things badly for the sake of learning or experimentation.

For all the talk of cultures of innovation, and safe-to-fail environments, we’re not particularly comfortable with the idea that people can come to be good at things that they don’t immediately show aptitude for.

Weightlifting has allowed me to absorb the lesson that it’s not only okay to suck at something, it’s an absolute requirement if you want to do hard things. Sucking at something isn’t just an unfortunate stage to be endured, it’s a critical step to understand the underlying logic of a skill. By not sucking at something first, we miss out on a clear understanding of how we come to be effective, when we eventually do.

Growing up I was not athletic, and I rarely felt like it was safe to be bad at something. If I tried something and wasn’t immediately great at it, I generally stopped doing that thing. I simply didn’t understand that one might choose to do something they were not obviously gifted at. As an adult I finally know that consistent effort focused on any skill over even a short period results in significant improvement from your baseline. It’s not magic, it’s simply a reflection of where we choose to put our intentional effort and focus.

Practice not Performance. This is my favorite phrase from Lahey and Kegan’s book ‘An Everyone Culture‘. It speaks to their belief that in a Deliberately Developmental Organization, we free ourselves from expending energy on managing how others see us and our contributions, and instead devote that effort to practicing and actually improving on our abilities.

If you’ve ever worked in an organization where covering one’s ass is the norm, and where your reputation with the boss this week is the primary metric for your performance, then you’ll get this. Trying to be perceived as capable, instead of exclusively focusing on becoming more capable is exhausting, and obviously a major distraction from the objectives of your work.

Making progress in weightlifting is not about performance. There is no faking an unassisted pull-up or an overhead squat. Instead there are weeks and months of practice, failed attempts, and incremental progress.

As a woman, my focus on building strength as opposed to losing weight, or ‘toning my abs’ is sometimes met with confusion.”Be careful not to get too big and bulky” is the most common advice I get from well meaning friends. It’s never been more apparent to me how conditioned we are to evaluate any female action in terms of its potential to detract from her ability to please others with her appearance.

Treating our work as a performance for someone else’s benefit robs us of the full effort we might put into improving our capability. Cultivating an environment in which managing others’ perceptions is an unwritten duty on job descriptions guarantees we will never see or benefit from team members’ full abilities.

If There is a Secret to Success, It’s Being Uncomfortable. I’m hesitant to offer advice on success, partly because of how subjective success is, but mostly because there are already about 3.2 million articles on the 14 Things You Must Do If You Want to be a Multi-Millionaire, so what can I possibly add?

What I will say is that many people I consider to be successful seem to have at least one thing in common: a willingness to do uncomfortable things, and have uncomfortable conversations that others work hard to avoid. I believe that this is a critical mental skill, and one that is particularly important in any role primarily concerned with people.

While weightlifting is certainly not the only athletic pursuit that requires one to embrace discomfort, I’ve personally found it to be the most mentally taxing. Repeatedly making a deliberate choice to acknowledge that physical and mental discomfort, and then acting anyway is hard, but there simply isn’t an alternative if I want to get stronger and better. When I have multiple sets ahead of me, I know I have to sink into the discomfort and focus only on the next few reps, not all those sets.

At work, being able to see the big picture is critical, but it can also be overwhelming if we focus on all the challenges and discomfort between here and there. The ability to zoom in, limit focus, and accept discomfort as a cost for getting the next conversation right in service to our values and a larger goal allows for perspective.

Your Inner Voice is an Asshole. Well, mine is. I’ve been an anxious person my whole life, but it wasn’t until I started weightlifting that I finally tuned into what the sneaky liar in my brain was actually saying: “I can’t. Definitely not. Totally going to die this time.”

It didn’t matter if I’d just lifted the same weight, or how good I was feeling physically that day. Every single time my brain told me that I remembered wrong, I was a skinny weakling, and I was definitely going to get crushed like a bug. No surprise that this voice is equally unhelpful at work, the grocery store, when I get dressed in the morning, or when I’m doing anything except sleeping.

Tuning into this voice while lifting and noticing what a huge jerk it is hasn’t magically cured my anxiety, but it has given me a great opportunity to practice being a rational adult that can replace its claims with more helpful thoughts. I’ve been able to use this skill in other contexts too, like public speaking, and I haven’t been squashed like a bug…yet.

I’ll bet that your inner voice is probably an asshole too, at least some of the time. In organizations, recognizing that each of us has our own unique barriers to learning new skills and developing our abilities is a key part of moving past the unhelpful view that people who resist change or feedback are our adversaries who need to be fixed, convinced, or bribed.

Consistency Over Brilliance, Always. We revere ‘talent’, expertise, and visionary leaders. So much so that we often overlook consistence as a virtue. Yet the gap between intention and action can undermine even the most talented performer.

It can be hard to focus on repeated execution when it seems like it’s the ideas people that get all the glory. But, as someone I know often says, ideas are only valuable when applied. Knowing what to do is of limited use without the ability to consistently deliver.

Anyone who has tried, failed, and tried again to create an exercise habit will know this all too well. We know what we should do, but in the moment, when we give ourselves a choice, it is almost impossible to choose to go the gym or set out on a run or ride. I don’t trust willpower; instead I try to use every lever available to me to create a habit so that I never question my decision to train. Choice architecture provides insights into designing our environments to influence our choices, whether they concern exercise, writing, or asking more questions in meetings.

For me, the inner work of work means identifying the ways that I’m getting in my own way and trying to do them less. It’s recognizing that the only variable at work that I can truly control is myself, and seeing that for the opportunity it is.  The deadlifts are a bonus.

Disclaimer: The Inner Game of Work is the title of a book by Tim Gallwey and not a phrase of my invention. Please don’t sue me Tim Gallwey. Also, thank you to my colleague Alyssa for encouraging me to finally write this post.

Read This Week:

The Al Capone Theory of Sexual Harassment Valerie Aurora and Leigh Honeywell
This is a very interesting read about a theory of sexual harassment in the workplace:
“The U.S. government recognized a pattern in the Al Capone case: smuggling goods was a crime often paired with failing to pay taxes on the proceeds of the smuggling. We noticed a similar pattern in reports of sexual harassment and assault: often people who engage in sexually predatory behavior also faked expense reports, plagiarized writing, or stole credit for other people’s work.
Then we realized what the connection was: all of these behaviors are the actions of someone who feels entitled to other people’s property – regardless of whether it’s someone else’s ideas, work, money, or body.”
The Science of Behaviour Change – Sara Saddington: For a deep dive on the science of behaviour change in organizations, check out this great post from my colleague Sara.
“Many teams and leaders think of change as something that happens at an organizational level. However, for organizations to achieve meaningful change in a sustainable way, they need to create the conditions that enable behavior change for the individuals that make up the organization.”


Image credit: Cyril Saulnier on Unsplash



10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you

    July 24, 2017
  2. Excellent blog and I understood it all for once. It just struck me that a good recent example of consistency over brilliance is Chris Froome. Chris just won his fourth Tour de France and yet he did not win one single stage. His overall consistency in every stage won him the race.

    July 24, 2017
  3. Jane, wonderful post! Your insight into perception management is spot on. So much time is wasted in CYA defended as “stakeholdering.”

    July 24, 2017
  4. Peter watson #

    Forefront , none derivative and fresh article.

    July 26, 2017
  5. I am a 48 year old woman who started powerlifting about a year ago. You are so right about the “sucking” part! Thank you for your insights. I needed a reminder.

    July 30, 2017
  6. “If There is a Secret to Success, It’s Being Uncomfortable.” Sage advice –

    September 8, 2017

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